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Even if you aren’t an oenophile, the vineyards of Northern Sonoma’s Wine Road are worth the journey. The countryside, like this panorama at J. Pedroncelli Winery, offers a respite from a busy life. Photo by Jerry Ondash
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Hit the Road: ‘The best of the best’ along the Wine Road

When one of the entree selections is labeled “Chef Valette’s Trust Me Tasting Menu,” should we go for it?

We take the leap and are rewarded with a sampling of 10 selections (five each) from Chef Dustin Valette’s kitchen at Valette Healdsburg. The restaurant, a short block off Healdsburg’s town square, is the creation of Valette and his half-brother, Aaron Garzini, who manages the enterprise.

I am happy to trust the chef and relinquish the decision-making, but my husband must exit his comfort zone. In the end, he is glad he did.

Founded by brothers, chef Dustin Valette and manager Aaron Garzini, Valette Healdsburg is popular with the locals who favor the Day Boat Scallops en Croute, pictured. “The locals would revolt is we took it off the menu,” says Chef Valette. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Our “Trust Me” selections include Kobe Beef Tartare (raw beef with spices); Sweet Corn & Poblano Soup (to die for); Coriander Crusted Duck Breast; Pan Seared Petrale Sole with Bernier Farms purple cauliflower puree; and Day Boat Scallops en Croute, a souffle-like dish constructed with a filo-dough puff pastry and a beurre blanc (white butter) cream sauce that is theatrically poured through a hole in the black dough, color courtesy of squid ink. (Verdict: superb.)

No, I would not try this at home, which is exactly what made this foodie experience so special. And such experiences are plentiful on Northern Sonoma County’s Wine Road. The collection of restaurants, wineries and lodgings are set in and around the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.

The area surrounds visitors with countryside blanketed by exacting vineyards, orchards, gardens and small farms; mountain ranges with 4,000-foot peaks; leafy, picture-postcard towns; and homes dwarfed by the occasional mature redwood.

Many vintners, innkeepers, chefs and restauranteurs came here because Northern Sonoma County is what it is and there is focus on keeping it local.

You couldn’t get produce more local than what leaves the kitchen of Chef Tom Schmidt at John Ash & Co. Restaurant, situated on the grounds of Vintners Resort in Santa Rosa. Schmidt needs only to step outside to source ingredients.

“We have a little (garden) plot here and there on the 92 acres,” he says. In addition to the 55 acres of grapevines and 300 olive trees, “we have six varieties of fig trees, peaches, quince, apples trees, 320 varieties of tomato plants, kale, chard and a rotating lettuce supply. We get about 200 heads every two weeks. We’ve got summer squash and zucchinis and cauliflower. Pumpkins for décor and also for soups. The corn is just dying out. Oh, and we have herbs — rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, cilantro. Many grow all year long, but mostly from May to the end of October.”

And come spring, the grounds of Vintners Resort will bring forth another crop — not for eating but for pure visual pleasure: 10,000 tulip blooms.

Sourcing local ingredients is just part of the Northern Sonoma culture, says Lisbeth Holmefjord, co-owner of Baci Wine Bar. Holmefjord was born in Norway; husband and chef Shari Sarab in Iran. They met in Hawaii and owned Italian restaurants there until their sons’ education brought them back to Healdsburg. They bought Baci Wine Bar in 2010 “when the economy was in the dumps.”

But the community has been supportive, Holmefjord says. “Even during the pandemic, we did a hundred dinners (to go) a night.”

In turn, the restauranteurs support local farms.

“We get the best of the best. There is such fertile ground here, and (the farms) come and deliver every day.”

Robert Young chats with guests who come to enjoy the wine created by his grandfather, for whom the Robert Young Estate Winery in the Northern Sonoma County town of Geyserville is named. Young is the fifth of six generations to work in some capacity at the estate. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Some of Northern Sonoma’s vintners are here because their families put down roots generations ago. Despite three disastrous fires in four years, the current drought and the two-year pandemic, people like 27-year-old Robert Young aren’t going anywhere. He the fifth generation of six to work Geyserville’s Robert Young Estate Winery. Named for his grandfather who saved the former prune ranch from foreclosure, it was his great-great-grandfather, Peter Young, who purchased the ranch in 1858. In 1963, Grandfather Young “discovered that 14 acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes brought in more money than 217 acres of prunes,” says Grandson Young.

Grandfather Young also was the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley and propagate the now-famous Chardonnay Clone 17.

Grandson Young recounts some family history as we enjoy the wine and the expansive, comfortably furnished patio that affords a sweeping view of the vineyards. Despite recent renovation of the tasting room, “people like to be out here,” he notes.

Young grew up on the property “and I was expected to help out. I started working summers in the vineyards when I was 13 and got into the tasting room when I turned 21.”

Family roots also run deep at the Pedroncelli Vineyard & Winery in Dry Creek Valley. Four generations have been involved in the business and visitors can see the first family home and the working parts of the vineyard.

“Everything is done on the premises to make 70,000 cases a year,” says tasting room manager Gina Rivera as we check out the giant crusher. “This is one of the oldest wineries in Dry Creek Valley.”

Pedroncelli is among the first to use the Sonoma County appellation and is distinguished by its ownership — 70% women.